NEW DELHI — India’s opposition Congress party on Wednesday questioned the decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to double the gap between doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, asking whether it was prompted by a vaccine shortage.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the government increased the gap last month without the agreement of the scientific group that it said recommended the move, citing three members of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) advisory body.
In multiple statements on Wednesday, the government said the gap was increased based on scientific evidence after thorough discussions among members of NTAGI as well as its working group on COVID-19 in two meetings held in May.
Congress leaders, including former party president Rahul Gandhi, said the government was trying to cover up a vaccine shortage.
“India needs quick & complete vaccination,” Gandhi said in a tweet.
The AstraZeneca shot, made domestically and branded COVISHIELD, accounts for nearly 90% of the 259 million vaccine doses administered in India, where some states have curtailed vaccination programs over supply constraints.
The government said the NTAGI’s working group on May 10 initially recommended increasing the dosing interval to 12-16 weeks, a proposal that was subsequently taken up by a larger NTAGI committee on May 13.
The committee advised that “as per the COVID-19 working group recommendation, a dosing interval of a minimum three months between two doses of COVISHIELD vaccine was recommended,” the government said in a statement.
“We have a very open and transparent system where decisions are taken on scientific basis,” said N.K. Arora, chairman of the working group, according to a second government statement on Wednesday.
J.P. Muliyil, a member of the COVID working group, had told Reuters on Tuesday there had been discussions within the NTAGI on increasing the vaccine dosage interval but that the body had not specifically recommended 12-16 weeks.
NTAGI members had told Reuters that the group had no data concerning the effects of a gap beyond 12 weeks, and Arora also did not cite such a study in Wednesday’s statement from the federal health ministry.
Arora said that the decision to expand the gap to up to 16 weeks had been made to provide “flexibility” for those who may not be able to get the second dose at 12 weeks.
India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, said that India has a robust mechanism to evaluate data, reiterating that the decision to increase the gap was based on science.
“It’s unfortunate that such an important issue is being politicized!” he said in a tweet. (Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Krishna N. Das; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Gerry Doyle and Raju Gopalakrishnan)